Dave Hodges

More About: Politics: General Activism

Ignoring the Will of the People: Groupthink (Part 1)

Our Founding Fathers knew that future generations would encounter entities of self-serving forces which would attempt to use the power of government as a means to their end in order to plunder the resources and civil liberties of the many. Make no mistake about it; America's resources and civil liberties are being decimated right before our eyes.

The startling results of the November 2006 midterm elections demonstrated that most Americans intuitively know that there is something fundamentally wrong with the management of the country. However, most Americans idea of social, political and economic change consists of changing their vote on the perpetual pendulum that swings back forth between the R's and the D's. If the R's are not working for middle class interests, then vote for the D's. And then four years later, America simply reverses the voting process and votes in the other direction. This is not democracy; this is mindless capitulation to the corporate-controlled, defacto one party system that rules Washington.

Immediately, upon assuming the Speaker role for the House of the Representatives, Nancy Pelosi surprisingly and immediately warmed up to President Bush. Many political observers had felt that one of the reasons for the passage of the presidential immunity provisions of the Military Council Act of 2006 was that Bush thought impeachment and subsequent criminal prosecution was a distinct possibility if the power structure of the House of Representatives and the Senate were to change as a result of the 2006 elections.

We are already seeing disillusionment with the voting public as America has quickly realized that nothing has changed and nothing will be changed as a result of the November elections. Pelosi will not lead an impeachment drive against Bush and she seems willing to continue the war in Iraq. Also, Pelosi shows no signs of forcing Bush to stop the illegal mass migration of cheap labor into America in record numbers. And to add insult to injury, Senator McCain has sponsored legislation which will bring us over 100 million "guest workers" to America within the next 15 years. In short, the American people spoke and our elected officials are not listening.

Every exit poll demonstrated that the 2006 elections were a national referendum against the Iraq War. The election also sent the clear message that an endless stream of illegal immigrants, which are overwhelming our infrastructure and social support services, would no longer be tolerated. The election results sent the clear message that we wanted the government to stop allowing the wholesale giveaway of our jobs to cheap labor markets. In short, the Republicans got their hat handed to them over their failure to adequately serve the American people. Yet, these politicians, particularly the surviving R's, seem unfazed by the election results. We will likely see troop levels climb to 200,000 GI's in Iraq and we will, once again, be paying $3+ for a gallon of gas. Bush is already hinting that he will revive the draft to increase troop levels. And the jobs that we cannot export will continue to be given to the cheap laborer and more than likely, that person is in this country illegally. The D's and the R's two are two wings of the same bird and they offer no real choice. Yet, the American people continue with their seemingly blind allegiance to a set of governmental leaders who show little concern for the people they purport to serve.

Since the country recently experienced a dramatic political revolution and the expressed will of the people will continue to be ignored, some individuals wonder if this will lead to a violent revolution in this country. I do think that this is likely. Will the purposeful neglect of the will of the people be met with widespread civil disobedience? I also doubt that this will be the case. Then why do we seemingly and blindly obey the authority figures in the present administration despite the fact that Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder could clearly see that government is blatantly ignoring the desires of the citizens?

The world of psychological research may provide an answer in the form of groupthink. Groupthink is often described as a decision-making process whereby the group members go along with what they believe is the consensus. Groupthink has also been used to describe individual acquiescence to authority even when the authority has limited power to enforce compliance. Groupthink often causes groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group's leadership and balance.

Just how far will people go to please authority figures? The first known test for groupthink occurred in 1963 by Yale professor, Stanley Milgram. Subjects were recruited for the Yale study through newspaper ads and direct mail. The participants were men between the ages of 20 and 50, from all educational backgrounds, ranging from an elementary school dropout to participants with doctoral degrees.

Milgram wanted to determine what percentage of people would willingly administer enough progressive electric shocks which would result in death simply based on the orders of a perceived authority figure (i.e., the experimenter).

There were three participants in the experiment:

1. The teacher was the real subject in the experiment. Their role was to administer shocks for each wrong answer provided by the learner. How far would they go, was the true subject of the experiment? Would they actually kill a person for failing to provide the correct answer on a word pair test? Would they mindlessly follow the orders of the experimenter to continue with the abuse, regardless of the results?

2. The learner was actually a plant in the experiment. They would sit in an adjacent room and pretend to be shocked for each wrong answer. Eventually, they would cry out for help. Their cries included pleas of mercy that were often based on an unknown level of self-expressed cardiac distress that they were pretending to experience.

3. The experimenter was a stern looking fellow who carried a clipboard and would urge the learner to continue regardless of the pleas of the learner.

The "teachers" were told by the experimenter that they would be participating in an experiment to test the effects of punishment on learning. However, as has already been stated, this was not the goal of the experiment.

The "teacher" was given a list of word pairs which was used to teach the learner. The learner was actually a confederate, or a plant, in the experiment. The teacher would then read the first word of each pair and read four possible answers. The learner would deliberately press the wrong button to indicate his response. Since the answer was incorrect, the learner would receive an electric shock, with the voltage progressively increasing with each wrong answer. Therefore, the subjects believed that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving an ever increasing level of actual shocks which would eventually result in death.

In reality, there were no shocks. After the confederate (i.e., learner) was separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds of pain and distress for each successive level of shock. After a number of voltage level increases, the learner would bang on the wall which divided him from the subject (teacher). After several instances of banging on the wall and complaining about his heart condition, the learner provided no further responses to questions and no further complaints. The fate of the learner was left to the imagination of the teacher (1). The silence was met with the command to continue with the experiment. Although the learner was not being harmed, the teacher believed that they were administering progressively dangerous shocks. From the instrumentation panel, the teacher could clearly see that their shocks were approaching the level of lethality. Was the teacher being forced to capitulate and continue with the experiment? Quite the contrary was true.

If at any time the subject hesitated or expressed a desire to discontinue the experiment, the subject was given a planned and verbatim succession of verbal prompts by the experimenter:

1. "Please continue.

2. The experiment requires that you continue.

3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.

4. You have no other choice, you must go on."

If the teacher still wished to stop after having listened to four successive verbal prompts, the experiment was discontinued. Otherwise, the experiment was terminated after the subject had administered the lethal 450-volt shock three times in succession.

Despite expressing some measure of discomfort and the minimal use pressure, in Milgram's first set of experiments, 65% (26 out of 40) of the subjects administered the experiment's final and hypothetically fatal 450-volt shock. Amazingly, no participant steadfastly refused to give further shocks before the 300-volt level! (1)

Milgram's results were confirmed when Dr. Thomas Blass (2) performed a meta-analysis on the results of repeated performances of the experiment. Blass found that the percentage of participants who were willing to administer fatal voltages remains remarkably constant, between 61% and 66%.

The results of Milgram's and Blass' work are stunning in their final conclusion which demonstrated that almost two-thirds of all Americans will mindlessly follow the commands of a "perceived" authority figure even when the authority figure has no real power over the people. Is this why the will of the people can be ignored in election after election? Does this explain why thousands of unhappy draftees will report for duty the day after Bush seeks and receives his desire for the reinstatement of a draft in order to fight an elective, illegal war which flies in the face of the country's wishes? Is this why we will, once again, pay $3+ dollars for a gallon of gasoline without so much of organizing a large scale protest?

To achieve political success, every authoritarian institution requires a high level of voluntary cooperation (i.e., groupthink) from its citizenry. Cooperation can be coerced as many times, in dictatorial regimes, cooperation is obtained as a result of extreme intimidation by carrying out a relatively small number of exceptionally harsh punishments in order to serve as a warning to the masses. However, there are not enough police, inspectors, auditors, etc. to control a populace in which the majority would fail to comply with the status quo. Then why do we continue to follow leaders who have abandoned the Constitution and our people long ago? Is America a prisoner to the groupthink phenomena? What about gross ignorance as a contributor to America's capitulation to such bad leadership? Can anything be done? The subsequent parts of this series will examine these questions along with some potential solutions.


(1) Milgram, Stanley (1963). "Behavioral Study of Obedience". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378.

(2) Blass, Thomas. "The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority", Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, 25, pp. 955-978.

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